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“Ellie Versus the So-Called Fett”

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"Ellie Versus the So-Called Fett"

 

 

Eleanor Faye Bartowski Woodcomb is, under most circumstances, usually a frighteningly accurate judge of character.

This isn’t to say that Ellie has a perfect track record – there are those individuals who have managed to surprise her, both for the better and for the worst (though more have managed to prove themselves greater than her initial estimate than otherwise, given that her "hope for the best but plan for the worst" mentality tends under- rather than over-estimate the good qualities and strength of most individuals she meets) – but it is to say that her batting average, when it comes to reading folks, is a great deal higher than the norm.

She knew that her mother was woefully ill-equipped to be a mother, for example, and that, though she certainly cared for first her daughter and then her son a great deal, she likely wouldn’t last long at that particular job, so she was unsurprised (if, nonetheless, heartbroken) when she finally left the Bartowski home for good. While basically a decent person (and certainly a beautiful and funny and clever one), Ellie has always gotten the feeling that her mother married her father expecting certain things . . . and being left alone entirely too much of the time in an oversized house with first one and then two small children while her husband vanished for days and even weeks at a time with government types in suits to work on God only knows what kind of theoretical problem or experimental technology most certainly had not numbered among those expectations, and been regarded, thus, essentially as deal-breakers.

Similarly, Ellie also knew that her father, for all he certainly loved his family, would likely end up leaving them, too – for his work, if nothing else. The men in suits who so often came to their home to speak to him and so often ended up taking him away from his family – the men who had been a constant source of tension between her easy-going, glad to help father and her suspicious, easily bored, high-maintenance mother (whose nagging questions, "But why do they want you? Why do you need to help them? Why can’t they get someone else – or at least pay you decently for your trouble?" were such a constant refrain and were just as often met with a long-suffering sigh, impatient roll of the eyes, and a lecture on the necessity of keeping an open mind and keeping up with other advancements in the field, for scientists interested in making real discoveries, that it wouldn’t be until much later that it even occurred to Ellie to wonder just what her father might’ve been doing for those men in suits or why he’d felt compelled to work for them) – always seemed to secure more of Stephen Bartowski’s time and interest than anyone or anything else, even his children. Though stunned (and infuriated) by the sudden nature of the man’s eventual departure, Ellie couldn’t truthfully say she was really all that surprised, when she and her brother finally lost their father.

(A Beautiful Mind is the only movie Ellie Bartowski has ever gotten up in the midst of viewing and simply walked out on – well, half stalked and half run out on, to tell the truth – completely. She’s abandoned more than a few disappointments or cover movies mid-film, to sneak out of that particular darkened theatre and into another showing at one of the local cinema complexes, usually in the company of a gaggle of giggling friends. But this is the only film in her life she’s ever stood up from and left, leaving behind a bewildered and fuming date. For her, the movie just cut a little too close to home. She hasn’t been able to watch anything with Russell Crowe in it, since, because every time she sees him, she immediately thinks of that movie, and that makes her think of those blank-faced men in those bland dark suits, and the fact that her father simply walked out of the house one day promising to fix his kids pancakes for supper and never returned.)

When Chuck was born, Ellie was old enough to know that she was going to be the one who’d have to take care of him, and so she decided then and there (at the grand old age of three) that she was going to make it her life’s mission to see to it that no one could ever hurt her little brother. It’s a decision she’s never really regretted, though there have certainly been times when she’s wished that maybe their parents might make a little bit more effort to take care of them both, instead of her (and, later, Chuck) having to take care of them and Chuck both. She loves her little brother, and, to her, that’s really the only thing that matters.

That’s why she’s never bothered to run off that slimy little maggot, Morgan Grimes, even though she dearly would’ve loved to’ve done exactly that, just as she’d already done with several other so-called friends or would-be friends she’d known would be nothing but trouble for Chuck. Despite the fact that the little miscreant has been spoiled rotten by his overprotective mother and that he has no social skills to speak of whatsoever and is, frankly, apparently uninterested in gaining any of the social skills he lacks, Morgan genuinely looks up to and admires and cares for Chuck (in his own admittedly odd fashion). And, well, Chuck is like Ellie, at heart. A nurturer. He thrives when he can take care of others. Plus, being around Morgan brings out all of those great leadership skills and people skills that Ellie really wants to encourage Chuck to use, since she’s sure they’ll help him land his dream job some day. And, perhaps more importantly, for reasons she can’t (and doesn’t particularly want to) fathom, her little brother seems to genuinely care about Grimes. So even though he makes her skin crawl at even the best of times (between the über-possessiveness towards Chuck and the creepy perv stalker behavior he tends to exhibit towards her, she almost wishes she’d gone into behavioral neuroscience and/or abnormal psychology, as she’d initially considered, as an undergrad, if only so she’d know how to fix him a little), Ellie made and continues to make the supreme sacrifice and let Grimes stay, since Chuck seems to be happier with than without the little barnacle.

When Chuck is not only accepted at Stanford but offered essentially a free ride, as long as he keeps his grades up (like that’s going to be a hardship for her little brother, with his eidetic memory and geeky love of learning), Ellie’s both bursting at the seams proud of him (she knew he could do it. Knew it!) and nervous far past the point of being merely afraid for him. If anyone knows Chuck Bartowski, it’s Ellie, and she knows how trusting her little brother is and how he always seems to automatically assume the best of people, and she knows, too, how badly Chuck wants other people to like him. It’s a dangerous combination. Stanford (which is essentially Palo Alto, as far as she’s concerned) is several hours from Burbank, even for someone who (like Ellie, if she has reason to need to get somewhere fast) drives like the posted speed limit is really only a mild suggestion. And neither Chuck nor Ellie actually knows anyone there. It . . . worries her (okay, scares her out of her ever-loving mind), when she thinks about how many things could go wrong in the time it would take her to get to him. She freaks out a little (okay, a lot), when the time comes to move him in to his freshman dorm, and clings until Chuck has to gasp, "Okay. Uhm, Sis? Can’t. Breathe!"

The clatter of something that sounds an awful lot like a hardback book being dropped startles her into letting go, one of the bright, cheery masks she keeps for company slamming into place over her panicky face, and she backs half a step away from Chuck, looking up in time to catch a glimpse of a boy – Chuck’s age, probably. Shorter than Chuck, but then, who isn’t shorter than Chuck, who hasn’t been littler than her since junior high? Dark hair, not quite straight, but not as curly as Chuck’s, either. Pale skin. Eyes so blue and so light that they make him look blind, an impression mostly destroyed by the fact that he’s staring at Chuck over her shoulder like someone who’s turned a corner to head into a familiar room and unexpectedly seen the face of God, instead – snatching up a battered copy of Dune and darting away down a side hallway.

Her first impression of Bryce Larkin is a confused jumble of speed (dear God, that boy can move!), sci-fi geekery (Dune? He was walking around the dorm reading – well, rereading, from the looks of the book – Dune? It’s like something Chuck would do, for pity’s sake!), the sort of clean cut handsomeness combined with drop dead gorgeousness that belongs in some kind of professional magazine spread or up on a billboard somewhere, rather than wandering around some grungy freshman dorm, and an almost heartbreakingly touching impression that maybe love at first sight actually exists, as a quantifiable phenomenon, after all.

Much later, looking back on it all, she’s pretty damned sure that she should’ve know he would be nothing but trouble. But she’s so worried about Chuck all by himself up there that, when Chuck’s phone calls and emails home begin to be filled with nothing but Bryce Larkin (after she’s gotten Chuck to give her a detailed description of this Bryce Larkin kid, and after she’s had her suspicions confirmed by some photos snapped on a disposable camera and sent to her, as attachments), her first reaction is a combination of gut-deep relief (Chuck has someone up there to protect him, someone with a vested interest in keeping him safe and keeping the kind of people who’d use him and break his heart far, far away from him) and slightly teary-eyed (okay, so weepy might be a more accurate descriptor. Her little brother had someone who was in love with him and he was growing up so fast!) happiness, because she figures it’ll only be a matter of time before those messages home stop dwelling quite so much on how cool and awesome and smart Bryce is and start making notice of how sweet and caring he is, and Chuck finally twigs to the fact that, hey, his best friend and now roommate (Bryce having made all the arrangements and gotten their roommates settled elsewhere, so they could move in together)? Is in love with him. And that Chuck? Most probably if not definitely so, yes, loves him back.

The whole Jill thing? Well, it bothers her, to tell the truth. She can’t help but think of the whole thing with Jill as a tactical error, on Bryce’s part (hey, Chuck isn’t the only sci-fi fan or gamer in the family! She’s just not quite as consumed by geekery as her little brother is, is all). Chuck would’ve been just as happy and thrilled and open to the prospect of being singled out as a potential friend by someone like Bryce without the offer of an introduction to some random hot chick, which means that Chuck wouldn’t feel obliged to like Jill, too, since Bryce went out of his way to introduce her to Chuck, if Bryce hadn’t used her as a lure, during their first conversation.

She’s not all that worried about it, though. If nothing else, Ellie knows her brother. He likes Jill well enough, but he’s not in love with her, and, from the way he talks about her, he’s far more concerned with living up to Bryce’s expectation that she and Chuck would make a great couple than anything else. It won’t last long. It can’t. Chuck may like her, and he may have a good time when she’s around, but that’s not enough to keep him with her. It’ll probably be one of those on again, off again, on again relationships, until finally Jill either finds someone else or Chuck wises up and realizes he’s in love with his best friend and calls it quits. In the meantime, though, Ellie’s not expecting Chuck to invite Jill home for the holidays anytime soon.

She’s not at all surprised to be informed that Bryce is kidnapping Chuck for the school’s Fall Break and that he promises to send pictures. Or (later on) to hear that he’s bringing Bryce home for Thanksgiving, even if he has to knock him over the head to get him into the car. It’s a little surprising when the noise of the boys arriving wakes her from her power-nap on the couch (okay, so maybe it was more like an exhausted nap of two hours, but who’s counting?) and she struggles to her feet just in time to see Bryce carrying an hysterically laughing Chuck across the threshold, the grin on his face so wide and so genuinely happy that her heart stops for a moment, and all she can do is beam at them both, hand pressed hard against her heart, and feel tears gathering in her eyes.

That the whole thing with Bryce carrying Chuck across the threshold thing is apparently just the culmination of two silly boys spending entirely too long together in a car talking about geeky sci-fi things (including comics and movies and, somehow, the inevitable awesomeness if someone were to ever make a movie with both Superman and Batman in it. The last, apparently, ties directly into the carrying, though she’s still not sure she quite understands how, even after the fifth attempt at an explanation) is disappointing, but that Bryce can’t quite meet Chuck’s eyes when he agrees to this explanation and that he looks like a kicked puppy whenever Chuck isn’t looking at him only reinforces her initial impressions of Bryce. The boy has it bad for her brother and it looks like he means to stick it out until Chuck gets a clue, no matter how long it might take or how often his feelings might get hurt, in the process.

She feels her first flash of maternal protectiveness towards Bryce then and there, and decides to do everything in her power to see that he gets to spend as much time alone with Chuck over the holiday as possible. And if Bryce comes home with Chuck at Christmas, she’s going to make absolutely sure that there is more mistletoe hung up in here than they could possibly ever dodge, even if it meant that Bryce (being a smart boy) would surely understand that she knew his little secret.

When she comes in after a long shift and finds Chuck using Bryce’s lap as a pillow while the credits for one of the Star Wars prequel films scrolls across the television, her face hurts from the force of her smiles, and not even Bryce’s wild-eyed looks of thinly restrained terror can keep from grinning at him like a maniac. Bryce is an insanely charming person even when he’s not particularly trying hard – he’s the only person she can ever remember meeting with about as much natural charisma as Chuck, and that’s seriously saying something, because being around Chuck is like being around an unshielded star or the sun or something bright and hot and warm and dazzling (and it has to be the brains that scare people off – well, that and Ellie, keeping the users and the skanks away – because otherwise it just makes no goddamned sense to her, that more people don’t notice how awesome Chuck is and want to just fall down at his feet) – and he probably could’ve charmed his way out of such an incriminating scene with anyone else, but Ellie just smiles, crooks a finger, leads him out to the kitchen, sits him down, and proceeds to tell him a few pertinent facts, starting with the impossibility of kidding a kidder and ending with the promise that she’s going to be rooting for him . . . and that she’s sure Chuck will come around, if only Bryce can trust him enough to give him some kind of sign, so he’ll know that it’s not just in his head and write it off as just his imagination.

Bryce gives her the kind of shaky, tremulous, uncertain, brilliant smile that only someone who’s so entirely unused to having anyone else who gives a rat’s ass about him that he’s not quite sure how to react to proof that someone does, indeed, give a damn could manage to produce under circumstances wherein someone has, actually, not only given proof of giving a damn, but done so in such a way as to earn some (fragile, but nonetheless real) trust. She’s so happy that Bryce apparently trusts her and her good intentions enough to let her give him that bone-crushing hug she’s been dying to give him ever since he carried Chuck inside that it doesn’t quite register that, when Bryce goes in to wake Chuck up for supper, since Ellie’s home, he somehow slides right back into that coolest best friend ever persona of his while also managing to avoid touching any part of Chuck unless it became absolutely necessary.

She’s too busy smiling to herself and thinking that it’s only a matter of time until Jill vanishes from all of Chuck’s conversations to notice that, despite obviously being head over heels in love with Chuck, Bryce is doing everything in his power to keep some distance between them, like he’s afraid that, if he gets too close to Chuck, he might somehow damage him.

It’s not until later (much, much, much later, when it’s too late to do anything about it but sit alone in the dark and drive herself half insane, worrying about what she might have done differently and how she might have been able to help change things – help fix them for the better, for everyone – before they could get so irrevocably screwed) that it occurs to her that Bryce always acted like he was afraid of hurting Chuck or of contaminating him, somehow, if he allowed himself to get too close to her little brother.

As she’s sitting in her car at Stanford, shaking with rage and crying helplessly, trying to find some way to reconcile the Bryce Larkin with soulless, empty eyes who’d said, "He brought it on himself, Ellie. There was nothing else I could do," with the Bryce Larkin who’d taken one look at the half-dressed woman who’d chosen probably the worst possible time to come out of his bathroom and, obviously panicking, stuttered, "I – it’s not – I can explain, Ellie!" and the Bryce Larkin who’d looked like he was being gutted one slow millimeter at a time and hated himself for even noticing the pain, when she’d snarled at him that he’d broken Chuck’s heart for a dime a dozen whore named Jill and neither she nor Chuck would ever forgive him for it, even if he did recant his ridiculous story about Chuck stealing test answers to cheat (which anyone who knew Chuck at all would know had to be nothing but lies, because Chuck, with his visually based eidetic memory, simply had no need to ever cheat on a test), it occurs to her to wonder if there might not have been some other reason – aside from Jill and the fact that her brother is entirely too clueless for his own good – why Bryce and Chuck never seemed to go beyond friends.

As she sits in the car, trembling and hiccoughing helplessly, tears streaming down her cheeks and nose quickly becoming uncomfortably congested from the sobbing, it occurs to her that she should really hate the fuckers who managed to make Bryce Larkin hate himself so much that the only possible answer he could see to the apparent problem of his attachment to Chuck was to get Chuck thrown out of Stanford, thus, getting him away from Bryce and making him hate Bryce, all in one fell swoop.

She should just hate Bryce. Utterly, completely loathe the treacherous bastard. It would be ever so much easier to hate him. Hell, she hates Jill easily enough, and she knows (knows, somehow, is absolutely certain, just from looking at them, just from seeing the way Bryce subtly flinched away from Jill, like he couldn’t stand to be near her, that what he’d done to Chuck had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Jill or any feelings Bryce might or might not have felt for her) the unfaithful little two-timing bitch has nothing to do with what’s happened to Chuck. But as a white-faced and trembling Bryce wobbles shakily out of the frat house, half collapses against the side of the building, vomits profusely into the bushes, and then staggers away, out across the lawn, to collapse in a heap, visibly crying his eyes out, all she can think is, If I ever find out who’s responsible for this, it’s going to take more than the Hippocratic Oath to keep me from killing them. S-l-o-w-l-y.

The first thought that crosses her mind, some five years later, when she opens the paper to find the name Bryce Larkin glaring up at her from the obits, is that she never did get a chance to find out who it was who made Bryce hate himself so damned much.

The second, right on the heels of the first, is that she needs to be the one to tell Chuck, in case he takes it badly.

She’s . . . confused by his reaction. His lack of reaction, rather. Bryce was Chuck’s friend for nearly four years – his closest friend, closer even than Morgan (though Grimes would have a fit about that, if anyone pointed it out. Boba Fett to Chuck’s Han Solo, indeed. More like Bryce was Anakin Skywalker to Chuck’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, in a world where people were actually allowed to have nonheteronormist feelings for one another and the fact that 99.9% of the ’verse thought of two people as one united Team, as one being, was permitted to mean something) – and, even though Bryce essentially ruined Chuck’s life, that doesn’t mean that Chuck stopped caring about him or worrying about him or wanting to know how his friend is (wanting to have his friend back), since then.

She’s found Chuck sending emails to Bryce before, since the Stanford fiasco, and not just your standard I hate you! Why the fuck did you do this to me? How the fuck could you have done this to me? Didn’t you know I loved you? betrayed best friend/unrequited love notes, either. Short but wistfully sincere messages on his birthday. Online Christmas cards. A rather shakily written congratulations note, when Bryce graduated at the top of the class. Bryce has never replied, that she knows, but Chuck doesn’t seem to care. He still sends the messages and online cards. So this basic lack of reaction, now . . . well, she’s not sure if she should assume he’s in shock, or if she should be worried about him. There’s a hollow, cold bitterness lurking at the back of her little brother’s eyes that she doesn’t like.

And speaking of things she doesn’t like, the suddenness with which her little brother’s relationship with Sarah Walker seems to be evolving is a little . . . unsettling. Sarah seems like a nice girl and all – an extremely private girl, who apparently doesn’t believe in sharing anything of herself or her past with, well, much of anyone else, including Chuck – but there’s something about her that’s just . . . off. It nags at Ellie. Makes her worry that maybe she might have been a little overhasty, in her zeal to get her brother back into the dating scene. In the five years since Stanford, she’s begun to suspect that Chuck may have actually known that his feelings for Bryce ran just a little bit deeper than those of mere friendship. In fact, she’s also rather come to suspect that Chuck has clung with such unrelenting fervor to the memory of Jill, holding her up as a sort of shield between him and the rest of the world, because her little brother’s afraid that, if he doesn’t keep concentrating on her so hard that he can’t see rightly see anything or anyone else past her, he won’t be able to keep dodging the fact that he and Bryce? Weren’t ever really just friends, no matter what they may have both been telling themselves, most of those four years.

She can’t decide if she feels better or worse about all of this, when she wanders in from a grueling double shift at the hospital to find Chuck curled up on the couch, shoulders shaking, trying to muffle the noise he’s making crying by pressing both hands tightly across his mouth. The eventual explanation he offers – gasped out in between sobs that shake Chuck’s entire body – that he was watching a special on the new, rebooted Star Trek movie due out that winter and it occurred to him, in the midst of thinking to himself that Bryce would probably say the whole thing’s just wicked awesome, that Bryce would never get a chance to see that movie, hurts her so badly she thinks she can feel her heart cracking, under the strain. Even though she’s exhausted, Ellie holds on to Chuck until he cries himself out, and then holds on to him a little bit longer.

When Devon wanders out into the living room a few hours later to find them dozing on the couch, leaning together like tired children, she wakes up only long enough to explain that it must’ve finally sank in that Bryce is really dead, because Chuck was crying over Bryce when she got in from work. Devon sighs, shakes his head, mutters, "Not awesome, Babe. What can I do?" and offers to carry Chuck to bed. She lets him, and, because she’s so tired, lets him carry her, too, when he’s finished sliding Chuck into bed and come back to the couch to check on her.

When John Casey – the new greenshirt at the Buy More, who moved in just across the courtyard from them and who reminds her almost painfully of the traumatized war vets and ex-soldiers she’s occasionally made contact with, in her rounds at the hospital – comes to the door the next morning, asking for Chuck, the only reason she doesn’t send him away with his ears on fire is because there’s a shadow of real concern hiding behind those otherwise blank blue eyes and he fidgets under her hard stare like he knows he’s doing something wrong but doesn’t quite know what it is and would stop it if only he knew. She tells him flatly that Chuck isn’t feeling very well and that the Buy More can do without him for a day. When he looks down and shuffles his feet awkwardly and quietly asks, "Has he talked to you, yet? About that friend of his who died? Larkin?" she’s so surprised that she stops mid motion, door hanging awkwardly half open.

"Get in here and sit down. Talk to me. Now. What do you know about Bryce Larkin?"

The very large, very muscled man hustles through the open door, shooting her a slightly startled look, and sits down on the chair she indicates with one imperially outflung finger so quickly (with his body held at such rigid attention) that she almost expects a bark of, "Sir, yes, sir!" The thought’s so incongruous that she almost laughs, before she remembers how devastated Chuck was, the night before.

John Casey’s halting attempt at an explanation – that Chuck’s been distracted at work, and tired, and hasn’t seemed like his usual cheerful self, and that he snapped at Morgan, for saying something nasty about Bryce Larkin only being able to get things by stealing them from other folks – has her wondering just how the hell much attention this (big and burly and beautiful, from a purely objective point of view, but also quite patently damaged in some way, even if no one else seems to see it) man has been paying to her little brother and why it doesn’t seem to bother her that he has, obviously, been paying a helluva lot more attention to Chuck than anyone much short of family should have been. She explains to him (as well as she can, without coming out and bluntly declaring that Bryce had been in love with Chuck and that she suspects that, towards the end, Chuck was beginning to get an inkling of that, and to grasp that he loved Bryce back), very carefully, that Bryce and Chuck had been extremely close, that Bryce’s betrayal had been so entirely unexpected and so shattering that Chuck still hasn’t really come to grips with it all, and that Bryce’s sudden and inexplicable death has been playing merry havoc with his emotions.

Casey (she assumes this is the name he prefers, since she always hears Chuck and Sarah and Morgan refer to him by that name) listens to her attentively, but his face grows more and more closed the longer she speaks, and, by the end of her attempted explanation, his expression is so shuttered that his eyes seem as colorless as a clouded night sky. When she’s finished speaking, all he offers is, "I’m sorry he’s hurting. I won’t make it worse by asking any awkward questions. Time and space. Those are the great healers."

She narrows her eyes at him, because all of her instincts are screaming at her that he’s not telling her something that would be vitally important to her and the task of helping to pick Chuck back up again and start him on the process of mending the new cracks in his heart, but in the end she lets him go, because he’s somehow not seeing her, even with his eyes trained squarely on her face, and, whatever it is that he’s seeing, it’s not something she’s prepared to have knowledge of. (If it makes him shut down that much, she’s not sure she ever wants to know what it is that John Casey sees, in that moment, with those dead-darkened eyes.) Shrugging, she sighs, half nods, and she lets him go, with a warning that he should tell the other Buy More workers to try to lay off of Chuck for a while. He agrees, still not seeing her, and, as she watches him stride off across the courtyard at entirely too quick of a pace for someone who isn’t carrying news to someone else, it occurs to her that John Casey and Sarah Walker showed up in Chuck’s life at about the same time . . . just after his birthday party . . . when Bryce Larkin, according to Morgan Grimes, sent Chuck a cryptic email about Zork, a game they played and loved so much that they wrote their own version of it . . . evidently just before Bryce died . . . and just before Chuck started to act even odder than normal, all things considered.

The picture starting to coalesce in her mind is not a pretty one. Eleanor Bartowski is not one to jump at shadows or to indulge in conspiracy theories, but she remembers the men in suits who came to visit their father all too well, and she can’t help but wonder if Chuck hasn’t gotten mixed up in something dangerous . . . something tied, somehow, to Bryce Larkin. Something that might even explain Bryce’s sudden treachery, at Stanford, and his silence, in the years since then. And if it’s managed to get Bryce killed, whatever it is . . . Ellie’s thoughtful little frown turns into a full-blown scowl. She made a promise to herself, years ago, that she’d always take care of her little brother. And that’s what she’s damned well going to do. If Sarah Walker or John Casey or anyone else thinks they can take that away from her . . . well, they can all just frakkin’ well think again, as far as she’s concerned. Hrumph. Time and space her ass. More like bring out the Jedi mind-tricks and stick close and watch Chuck’s every move until she knows for sure that either whatever he’s gotten himself into isn’t going to hurt him or that she can take down whatever (or whoever) it is that’s threatening her brother.

Mind made up, she nods to herself, and sets off for the kitchen, to make some chocolate chip pancakes for Chuck whenever he wakes up. Pancakes are comfort food. They may not be able to make it all better, but if nothing else, they’ll let him know that she’s still here and she still loves him. It’ll help, no matter how upset Chuck might be. And things could always be worse. He’s willing to at least try to talk to her, which is more than she can say for the immediate aftermath of his return home from Stanford, when she’d been afraid, for awhile, that she might have to enlist some professional help, if she couldn’t get him to respond to her. She’ll just have to keep an even closer eye on him for a little while, until she’s got a better idea of what’s going on and what she can do to fix it, is all.

She’s not, however, expecting that her increased vigilance will eventually turn up Bryce Larkin. A very much so alive Bryce Larkin. In the courtyard, near Chuck’s window. Wrapped around Chuck like he wants very much to make them just one person. And Chuck clings back, desperately, face looking like someone’s broken him open and Bryce is the only thing keeping pieces of him from tumbling out and shattering irrevocably on the tiled floor of the courtyard.

The sight’s so unexpected and so unreal that she stops in her tracks, mouth gaping, and just stares, too stunned to even think of trying to pinch herself, to see if she’s awake or asleep. Bryce is dead, for God’s sake, Chuck went to his funeral, and (despite the really weird thing he said at the dinner table, earlier tonight) he’s been in mourning for Bryce; yet, somehow, there he stands, big as life and twice as real, by the wall behind Chuck’s window, half swallowed up by the shadows behind the fountain, in the covered way between the separate houses of the little complex where they rent, dark clothes and dark, messy hair making him fade into the darkness, the paleness of his hands where he’s clutching Chuck close and the stark whiteness of his face against Chuck’s shoulder shining like beacons in all that gloom.

Bryce has his face turned out but Chuck’s turning into Bryce, curling down over him, face half buried in his hair, so she can see both of them, see the expressions on their faces, and it makes her ashamed, like she’s deliberately spying, instead of just almost literally stumbling over them by accident on her way back from carrying out some extra emergency scrubs to the car, to take to the hospital, to replenish the stores she keeps in her locker, for the days when not all the protective coverings in the world can keep her clothes clean. (The days just after Thanksgiving are notoriously busy ones for the hospital, after all.) The small voice of reason in the back of her head (which is currently mostly drowning out by the gibbering howling forebrain, which can’t seem to let go of the fact that a man who’s supposed to be dead is holding on to her brother for dear life) informs her that it’s a very good thing she only caught sight on them on the way back from the car, or the sound of her bag full of scrubs hitting the paving stones would likely alert them to her presence, and then there really would be hell to pay.

Bryce is paler than she remembers, and thinner, his body seemingly harder, his dark hair a little bit longer than she remembers him ever wearing it, at Stanford, but he looks in remarkably good shape, for a dead man. Well. Except for that look on his face – half unspeakable anguish and half something entirely too close to the kind of narcotic blissed out euphoria she sees on the faces of critical care patients, when the next round of painkiller hits the bloodstream – making him look like he’s simultaneously being given the gift of a lifetime and having the skin flayed off his body one slow, square millimeter at a time. He’s saying something – murmuring it to Chuck, over and over – and, after a few moments, when the roar of blind panic and shock have subsided a little, she realizes that he’s telling Chuck, "It’s alright, Chuck. I’ve got you. I’m not going anywhere just yet. It’s alright. I’m here. I’m alright. I’m not leaving just yet. I’ve got you. I’ve got you, t’hy’la. I’ve got you, brother. I’ve got you. I’ve got you."

Chuck is crying like he hasn’t since the first days home from Stanford, when Ellie would go into his room to check on him, hoping to find him asleep, and instead find him curled in a tight knot of misery on the bed, shoulders shaking with silent sobs, tears streaming down his face, eyes blinded with misery, turned so far in upon himself that it didn’t even seem to register on him that Ellie was there, much less that she was trying to help, trying to offer comfort. She has a moment (that makes her feel about half a nanometer tall, only instants later, and lower down on the food chain than pond scum) when a viciously bright flash of satisfaction tears through her, making her lips curl into a cruel smile as she contemplates whether or not Bryce Larkin is proud of himself, for having reduced Chuck to this, but then her eyes fly wide and her mouth flies open around a silent gasp of pain, as she really takes in that addict high shattered face, tucked tight against Chuck’s left shoulder, and she hates herself for ever even thinking that, and desperately wants to cry.

Whatever it is that’s been going on, whatever it is that brought John Casey and Sarah Walker into Chuck’s life, whatever it is that apparently convinced a lot of people that Bryce Larkin had been killed when in fact he hadn’t, and whatever it is that’s been making her little brother act like someone’s dropped the entire world twice over onto his shoulders, well . . . it must be far worse than she’s been thinking (fearing) it is, or she wouldn’t be seeing such a look on Bryce Larkin’s face, like he’s in the one place he’s spent his whole life dreaming (wanting, hoping, wishing) about coming to . . . and knows that he’s going to have to leave it again.

When Chuck finally says something, she’s so surprised her whole body jerks. "Thought I’d lost you. Again. Thought you were dead. Again. Don’t – don’t – Bryce, I can’t – I’m not – I’m not like you, not like Sarah and Casey. I can’t – I can’t. Don’t ask me to do that again. Don’t ask me to just stand there while you – God, Bryce! Don’t do that to me again! Please. Please. Don’t ask me to go through something like that again!"

"I’m sorry, Chuck. I’m so sorry. I never wanted any of this, for you. I wanted to keep you safe from all of this. You have to believe me, if there’d been anyone else – "

It takes awhile to register that the bitter, broken, ugly noise Chuck is making is a laugh, and Ellie feels her heart breaking for her little brother all over again, hands doubling over into useless fists, when she realizes how badly she’s failed him, this time. "Are you kidding? I saw the recording. There was no one else. It nearly fried my brain, and my scores were higher than yours. Even if you – even if you’d had someone else, someone you trusted – "

Bryce is clinging to her brother so hard she would’ve had to’ve been blind not to notice the sudden shaking of his shoulders. For the life of her, though, she can’t tell if he’s laughing or crying. "It’s not a life that lends itself to trust, Chuck. You have to know that. You – "

"Don’t. Don’t, Bryce. Qo’. Don’t you dare. You’re just going to leave again and I’ll be the one trying to pick up the damn pieces, while you go off and do glamorous spy things again!" Chuck half sobs. "I didn’t ask for you to trust me! It’s not fair! You can’t ask that of me!"

"Chuck – "

"No. No. I know you can’t stay. Ellie and Morgan hate you and everyone thinks you’re dead and it wouldn’t exactly be good cover for me, for a dead spy to turn up in my backyard, now would it? They can’t risk their precious frakkin’ Intersect. Not until they’re sure they can replace me with a new system, anyway. And don’t tell me they aren’t just counting down the days until then, because I’ve seen how these people work, Bryce, and I’m not stupid, no matter what the General or the Director thinks. Christ! If they had any idea how to get this out of my head without killing me, they would’ve done it already. They don’t have enough information to rebuild the Intersect yet in its computerized form. So I’m all they’ve got. And I’m the one who’ll have to stay here with those two maniacs, since you can’t very well stay and it’s not like the government is just going to leave me alone, just because I don’t feel like playing their game any more. I’m the one who’s stuck here, not you. I’m the one who has to try to live with those two. Casey shot you, for God’s sake! How am I supposed to ever be able to trust him? He shot you! Even when Sarah and I both told him not to! And Sarah! She just believed you’d gone rogue! Didn’t question it at all! Was ready to shoot you, herself, when you turned up alive again! What the frak kind of girlfriend does that?" Chuck demands, voice rising to an hysterical pitch, though somehow he manages to keep it together enough not to shout, his voice never getting much louder than a whisper, despite its increasing shrillness.

"Chuck – "

"And how the hell could you just stand there and kiss her, after what she did? I’m sure she’s a nice girl and all – I like her very much, myself, and I’m sorry, for overreacting like that and telling Casey, but I didn’t know what you thought you were doing and I didn’t know if she was going to cooperate or try to shoot you again and I didn’t want things to go bad and for you to have to hurt her, either – and for God’s sake, Bryce! There are easier ways to get people to listen to you! There are easier ways to get people to help you! I know she was your partner and all and I understand – I understand that, okay, really, I do, I just – I just – it doesn’t make sense, to me! She was going to shoot you! What the hell made you think it was okay to kiss her, when she’d been ready to shoot you as a rogue spy, the last time she saw you? And what the hell was that with Casey, that little taunt, about him wanting to give something another try? You realize, don’t you, that he’s an absolute maniac, and he really would’ve shot, if I hadn’t been in the way?"

"Chuck – "

"And what the hell was all of that, anyway, with the needle? If you’d just told me what was happening, so I could tell the others, maybe we both could’ve avoided getting shot and maybe we wouldn’t both feel like angry mules kicked us in the chests! Maybe Casey and Sarah wouldn’t both think I’m both useless and crazy and maybe they wouldn’t both be pissed off at you for not making better arrangements, if your cover for the Fulcrum op required you to do something completely insane like, oh, break in to a top secret government facility and download the Intersect to your phone so you could send it to me in an email attachment if you were captured or – or t-terminated!" The stutter in her brother’s voice drives it painfully home that, whatever he and Bryce are talking about, it’s not video games or any other kind of game, either, and, for a while, her brain is a humming blank of shock, the image of her brother and Bryce wearing Kevlar vests and getting shot stuck on endless loop in the darkness behind her eyes.

"Chuck – "

"BIjatlh ’e‘ yImev! So help me God, if you tell me I have to understand or that it was the only way, I will hit you, Bryce! I will hit you!"

Bryce sounds like a man who’s been vivisected and is doing his best to simply ignore the agony, in the hopes that it might go away. "I had my orders. And I couldn’t see another way out of that trap. Just like I couldn’t see another way to keep them away from you, at Stanford, besides taking away their reason to be interested in you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m not as smart as you are, Chuck. I’m good at what I do, but I’m not – Christ, Chuck. I’m sorry. I’m not Superman. I wish I was. But I’m not. I did the best I could, with the Intersect. I did the only thing I could think of, in time, at Stanford. And all I keep doing is hurting you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. If I knew of a way to fix this – to fix all of this – I would. I swear to you, I would do it. I’ll do everything in my power – everything – to try to make this right again. You know I will. They won’t stop me."

"No, Bryce, they’ll kill you, if you step out of line again! They already thought you were rogue, once, Buddy. If they even suspect – "

"Chuck. I’ve got this. Alright? I promise. I swear to you, t’hy’la, I’ve got this. I’ve got you. It’ll be alright."

"How? How the hell can you make this right, Bryce? It’s not like a game! There’s no reset switch here if we fuck up!" Chuck protests.

"Chuck, do you trust me?"

"Bryce – "

"It’s important, Chuck. Can you still trust me at all?"

Chuck makes that broken, ugly noise again, only this time it ends with the wrenching noise of a half-suppressed sob, and him clutching Bryce even closer. "You know I do."

"Maj. That’s all I need. That, and some time," Bryce promises, a hand coming up to pat Chuck’s head, fingers stroking gently through the tousled curls, neither one of them seeming to notice the intimate gesture.

"But – !"

"Your handlers are some of the best in the field. They may be crazy, but they’ll keep you safe. And in the meantime, I’ll find the man most responsible for the creation of the Intersect. He’ll help us. He’ll get that program out of your head. And we’ll have something to bargain with, to make sure the General and the Agency won’t touch you or anyone you know ever again. Alright? I just need you to trust me while I hunt him down. He went into deep cover several years ago. But there’s no such thing as someone who can’t be found, Chuck. I’ll find him, for you. He won’t say no to you." Bryce’s voice is more brittle than calm, and, even though Ellie doesn’t really understand what the hell it is they’re talking about, she has a sudden sinking suspicion that maybe her hindbrain knows more than the rest of her, and maybe that comparison she drew, all those years ago, between those men in suits visiting her father and the events of A Beautiful Mind might’ve been more apt than she knew. She wonders if Chuck realizes that, yet, and has to bite back on an urge to laugh hysterically. Of course someone outside the family would know more about their father than she does or Chuck seems to. The man’s so damned secretive it would take a government spy to riddle out all of his secrets.

"Why the hell would he want to help us? Help me? If he’s responsible for the damned thing, wouldn’t he be more likely to be happy, that someone could have the whole shebang downloaded into his head and not have his brain fried or liquified by the experience?"

"Let’s just say that he has a vested interest in keeping the innocent out of this. He left the program and went into hiding because he had a change of heart about the technology. Wasn’t very happy with the possibility of what could happen, if it got out and became widespread in use. Didn’t want anyone to use what he knew about the Intersect to modify it so it could be used as a weapon," Bryce explains, voice pitched reassuringly low and even, fingers combing soothingly through Chuck’s curls.

"What, you mean like – ?"

"Chuck." Bryce’s voice takes on a warning note. "Don’t go getting the urge to tinker with that thing, alright? Better not to think about the things that could be done to make that a weapon. The wrong people could get the wrong ideas, and then we’d really be farkled."

Chuck snorts a bitter (but far more easily recognizable) laugh, at that. "Don’t tell me you’re still reading those – "

"Hey! A man’s got to distract himself someone, during downtime. You don’t hear me making fun of your Superman fetish. I bet you watch that ridiculous show – "

"Hey! That show had potential, man! Just because it went all weird – "

Bryce laughs, and it almost sounds normal, in response to Chuck’s huffy defense of Superman, like the teasing banter and good-natured jibes they used to bounce off each other all the time, those first few years at Stanford. "YIDoghQo’. It was weird to begin with, Chuck. Trust me. Lex Luthor and Clark Kent as friends?"

Chuck smiles, a little tremulously. "I like weird things. And I’m friends with you, aren’t I? That’s gotta be at least as weird as Clark and Lex getting along."

"I don’t think Clark and Lex were in quite the same boat we were, Chuck."

"Why? Secrets, lies, betrayals, trust, friendship . . . the stuff of legends, my friend. I think we fit the bill pretty damn well."

"Chuck. I will get you out of this. Okay? I give you my word. As – as your friend."

"Buddy, no offense, but the jury’s still out on whether you understand what that really means. To be a friend, I mean."

"Chuck – "

"HIja’."

Bryce blinks, blue eyes opening wide, startled. "Nuqjatlh?"

"Lu’. JIyaj."

"Are you – are you sure?"

"Yes. No. Maybe. Hell, Bryce! What have I got to lose, at this point?"

"Chuck – "

"Look, I trust you, alright? I should probably have my head examined," Chuck adds, laughing a little, bitterness like acid running down the sounds, "but I trust you. If you say there’s a way out of this . . . then I’ll trust that there is. And I’ll wait for you to work things out. But don’t ask me to be happy about it. Don’t ask me to act like it’s alright. It’s not alright. You should’ve trusted me, at Stanford. You should’ve told me. I’m not some damn porcelain doll, Bryce! I wouldn’t’ve broken! I knew something was up, with you! I just – I thought – Jill and I were – well. I didn’t really think it was anything like what it actually was, but still! Dammit, Bryce, you should’ve trusted me! I could’ve helped you figure out some other way! Hell, maybe I might’ve even volunteered to be your asset and your asset alone, and we could’ve avoided all of this – this – this!" he snarls, waving a hand in an encompassing motion, obviously frustrated.

Bryce, though, just shakes his head. "Wouldn’t’ve worked. They’d’ve talked you into volunteering and the training would’ve destroyed you. I know you, Chuck. You always do the right thing. Even when it hurts you."

"I’m not some stupid little limited edition action figure from Comic-Con you can wrap up and put on a shelf for safekeeping, Bryce! For God’s sake! I think I’ve been doing pretty damned well, for having been dumped in the middle of all of this with no freakin’ warning! Casey said I stopped World War III, the other week, for Christ’s sake!"

While Ellie’s still trying to process the idea of her brother somehow being instrumental in preventing World War III, Bryce sighs quietly, tiredly. "I know. I know. You’re doing a great job, so far. Aces. Really. But Chuck, you aren’t the one who’s having to kill those people you’re flashing on, if they won’t surrender. Your handlers are doing all the wetwork, so you don’t have to get your hands dirty. Agents can’t afford to have clean hands. Assets, maybe. But agents? No. Having to do that – having to be that – Chuck, you couldn’t have done what I’ve had to do and still be you, now."

"You’re not a monster, Bryce Larkin. Don’t you dare try to convince me you are! You’ve got a weird sense of humor and a really bizarre idea of what it means to protect your friends and a frustratingly shitty habit of not responding to your freakin’ email, but you are not a monster. You’re Bryce Larkin from Connecticut and you are my friend," is Chuck’s immediate response, delivered in such a fierce tone of voice that Ellie has to strangle the urge to cheer, suddenly almost positive that, no matter how bad things might be (and she’s pretty damned sure that they’re pretty freakin’ awful), Chuck and Bryce are still going to figure out a way to make it all work out, after all, and maybe even get past whatever it was (and it can’t be just this – this – this weird agency stuff. This government stuff. This really freaky scary – okay, this utterly terrifying super secret deadly spy stuff. Bryce can’t have been recruited before he got to Stanford, surely, and if some government agency recruited him based on some kind of scoring system, that implies it would’ve been at least a year or two into his time at Stanford, to make sure his grades and performance level wasn’t just a freshman fluke. And, too, now that she thinks about it, she can remember Chuck complaining once, towards the end of his junior year, that Bryce had been acting a little bit . . . odd, lately. Working out more. Staying out more. Being evasive about where he was going, when he’d pull his vanishing tricks. Chuck had been worried. But only for about a month or two. Bryce had apparently seemed fine, afterwards. Maybe he’d finally settled in and accepted the fact that he’d let himself be recruited by the government?) that kept Bryce from ever making a move on Chuck, back at Stanford.

"Chuck, you don’t – "

"If you say I don’t know you, I’m going to hit you, Bryce Larkin. Hard."

That startles a bark of laughter out of the man, who notes, "I could kick your ass, Chuck. Without both hands tied behind my back. And without even half trying."

"Yeah, well, maybe Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam. Besides, Hab SoSlI’ Quch!"

Bryce sounds like he’s trying not to laugh, when he replies. "WeipuH, Bartowski. You leave my mother’s forehead out of it, unless you want to play dirty."

Chuck shrugs, the motion hampered the fact that they’re still clinging to each other like frightened children afraid someone is going to come and tear them apart at any moment. "Hoch ’ebmey tIjon, Larkin. All’s fair."

"MajQa’. I see I’ve taught you well."

Chuck grins, one of those brilliant sunny smiles that Ellie loves and that, back in the Stanford days, always seemed to leave Bryce a little dazed. Bryce indeed looks dazed, reassuring her that things are going to be okay, after all. "Who says you were the one doing the teaching? I seem to recall that I was the one who suggested using another language, for our plotting."

"And I was the one who insisted on tlhIngan Hol, as I seem to recall," Bryce retorts.

Chuck makes a harumphing noise. "I still think Vulcan would’ve been better."

"And I still think mainstreamers are more likely to recognize something Spock said. Besides, tlhIngan Hol is manly."

Chuck snickers, at that.. "Buddy, do you really think anyone would care which invented sci-fi language we’re using to trade secret notes? We’re geeks, either way."

"But this way, we’re geeks with really big swords, instead of pointy-eared pacifists. Besides, the beauty of speaking in a foreign language, Chuck, is that nobody else knows what it is. We could be speaking some variant of German, for all anyone else knows!" Bryce laughs.

Chuck laughs, too, and Ellie takes that as her cue to start backing away, very slowly, so she won’t alert them to her presence while she’s trying to sneak way. After all, there’s watching out for Chuck, and then there’s spying on things that are nobody else’s business. From the way those two are still holding on to each other like they’re afraid the other will vanish if either one of them were to let go and the sound of increasingly cheerful mock insults being volleyed back and forth, this situation is rapidly sliding away from the first and into the second.

Besides, she has a lot to think about, if she’s going to come up with a plan of attack for dealing with this mess. And it is a mess, whether Bryce and Chuck think there’s a way to fix it all or not. If what she’s getting out of what she’s overhead and what she already suspected is right, Bryce Larkin is some kind of super secret government agent. A spy. And he was recruited when he was still at school, and panicked and got Chuck thrown out of Stanford because his recruiter wanted to recruit Chuck, too, and the thought of Chuck becoming whatever Bryce was training to become was so awful that he was convinced being kicked out of Stanford and believing that his best friend had turned on him in order to poach his girlfriend was the lesser of two evils. (She’s not sure she follows the logic on that, until she remembers the deadened look in the eyes of some of the worst cases of combat stress reaction and post-traumatic stress disorder she’s seen come through the hospital. Then, she has to strangle the urge to run back out into the courtyard after Bryce and throw her arms around him and hug him until he can’t breathe, for keeping Chuck out of that.) But since Chuck is the only person Bryce has apparently ever trusted, he still ended up dragging Chuck into the midst of everything, evidently via that damned email he sent Chuck on his birthday.

Ellie’s not quite sure she understands what this Intersect thing they kept mentioning is, but she gathers it’s some kind of lengthy coded message or program that Chuck, with his eidetic memory, now has firmly lodged in his brain. And that this is the only copy of it left in existence. And that the government sent Sarah Walker and John Casey to guard Chuck, until they can figure out a way to either someone selectively wipe that information out of his head, rebuild a new Intersect from scratch, or . . . well, it’s the third option that bothers her. If Sarah and Casey are shooting people, to protect Chuck ("wetwork." Bryce called it. God!), and if Casey shot Bryce and Sarah was prepared to shoot Bryce, because they thought he’d turned on them and gone rogue . . . God. They might shoot Chuck, if it comes down to that or letting the enemy get their hands on him.

Bryce seems to think he can fix this, before it can come down to something like that, and Chuck trusts him enough that, if the possibility has occurred to him at all, it doesn’t seem to be bothering him (and, objectively, she has to admit that Sarah and Casey both seem to be growing fond of Chuck. She’s not sure they’d be able to follow through on orders – no, not even Casey, who couldn’t meet her eyes after she’d tried to explain about Bryce and Chuck and seemed so ashamed that all he wanted to do was to get out of there before she could tell him anything else – if they were ordered to take Chuck out. But Chuck is her little brother, dammit, and she can’t exactly just trust in that hunch and let it go, if there’s even a chance one of them might actually be able to shoot him!), but Ellie? Ellie isn’t sure that’s such a good idea.

So Ellie is going to make it her mission in life to ensure that Sarah and John Casey both become so damned attached to Chuck that they won’t even be able to contemplate the possibility of having to shoot him. And she is going to watch over them all, and figure out a way to deal with those two, if she has to, if it looks like Chuck might be in danger from them or anyone else in the government. (She is a doctor, after all. It wouldn’t be all that hard. Poison in a couple cups of coffee at a friendly get-together. Or something to make sure that they both go down and stay down for a very, very long time, if there’s a chance they might be of some help. Hippocratic oath be damned, this is her brother, for God’s sake! And those two have killed other people – some of them very possibly innocent of anything but being in the wrong place at the wrong time! She can’t let her squeamishness get in the way of protecting him, now! She made a promise to take care of him, and by God that’s what she’s going to do, no matter what it might require of her!) And she’s going to do her level best to keep anyone from suspecting she knows anything . . . just in case they might think she’s a threat and do something rash, like grab Chuck and run, if they start to suspect that the people around him may know that something hinky’s going on.

So she watches.

She watches while Chuck and Sarah dance around each other and seem to draw closer and closer together, but in reality never really get anywhere.

She watches while Chuck helps John Casey remember what it means to be a regular guy, again (with friends who care about you and have your back and are, for all intents and purposes, your family), and why he loves this country so much, and, eventually, even to remember that Chuck and his family are exactly why he went into the military in the first damned place.

She watches while Chuck and his increasing (if highly irregular) rate of absence from the Buy More essentially force his friends and coworkers there – even Morgan Grimes, whom she’d always thought of as destined to remain forever frozen in adolescence – to step up to the plate and to grow up some, to keep the store from sinking.

She watches while Chuck starts to send more and more and more emails to strange accounts, with the kind of goofy smile he always used to have for Bryce, when they’d email on the rare occasions Bryce didn’t end up going home with Chuck over the breaks from school or the weekends. And she makes sure that the occasional postcard full of incomprehensible alien script that comes in the mail ends up tucked away in a stack of books or comics or slipped into Chuck’s bag for him, so that he can find and read his notes from Bryce in privacy.

She watches when Bryce manages to do as he said he would, and bring in their dad. And she watches while Chuck finds out and comes to terms with the fact that their dad isn’t just crazy old Stephen Bartowski, but the man mostly responsible for whatever the hell kind of thing it is that got downloaded into his brain and is now stuck there.

She thinks that might be the end of it, then. That Chuck might just vanish one night, with nothing but an apologetic note and a promise that he and Bryce (who isn’t, by the way, dead after all) will be in touch. But then something happens. Something awful. She doesn’t know what, but she knows it’s something awful, because the postcards and the emails stop, and Chuck starts spending more and more time gone. Out in the field. And he starts to move like Bryce always did. Pure speed and liquid, effortless grace. Her clumsy little brother who could always manage to trip over nothing more than air, if sufficiently nervous or distracted. She knows something’s wrong, so she starts trying to weigh her options, to figure out if it’d be worth it, to drug Sarah or Casey and either go hunting through their files, to try to find out what happened, or else try her hand at interrogation, to see if she can get one of them to simply tell her what went wrong.

When a man – nearly as tall as Chuck. Straight, thick dark hair (if not black, then close enough that she’s pretty someone would have to be right on top of him to be able to tell the difference). Dark eyes. Classic good looks. Physique somewhere in between John Casey’s almost overpoweringly muscular bulk and Bryce’s lithe, gymnast/dancer/runner/swimmer build – starts to show up in all the same places Casey and Sarah and Chuck tend to, she really starts to worry that something has gone majorly, horribly, unfixably wrong. She’s just about decided that she’s going to have to confront Chuck about it, if she wants to get to the bottom of things without making anything worse, and has let herself into the house he now rents with Morgan (who, thankfully, is out of the house, on a date), when there’s a sound like someone kicking in the door, and she hears her brother, coughing a little as he weakly protests, "Dan – Dan, come on! I know you’ve got a thing for carrying people, but seriously! You can put me down! I can walk! I’m not really hurt! I had on my vest and everything! I just kinda banged my knee kinda hard dodging behind that car at the last second, is all!"

"Shaw." The unfamiliar male voice sends her running for cover, and she’s glad they’re apparently too preoccupied to notice any noise she’s making, because she automatically dives into Chuck’s room to hide . . . only that’s where the man carrying her brother is bringing him, forcing her to take refuge in the closet.

"Excuse me?" Chuck sounds breathless, like he’s actually having trouble breathing, and she risks a peek through the crack where the closet doors don’t quite meet all the way, in time to see the strange man she’s been seeing around Chuck and his two handlers lately stride into the room, Chuck slung unceremoniously over his right shoulder.

"You never call me Dan," the man quietly explains, moving across the room to the bed. "None of you do. Just Agent Shaw," he adds, a slight hint of something – maybe bitterness, but possibly wistfulness? – in his otherwise even tone as he reaches up to catch Chuck with his other hand, bracing him that way as he leans forward to put him down on the bed, making the transfer as easy and gentle as possible, instead of just slinging him around and dropping him down.

Chuck still sounds like he’s having trouble breathing, and, as the man – Agent Shaw, or Dan, as Chuck called him – takes a step back, she sees her brother rubbing at a spot high on his chest, just below his left shoulder, grimacing like it hurts like hell, and has to bite down hard on her bottom lip, as it registers that her little brother has apparently been shot – again. Doctor’s instincts and sisterly instincts both want her out there, peeling back his shirt, to make sure he hasn’t sustained any serious injuries, but she knows it would be a bad idea, so she makes herself hold still, instead, while Chuck laughs a little and replies, "Yeah, well, we’re still getting used to having all of a sudden had you – erhm, to having you with us, that’s all."

"You mean having me dumped on you so suddenly. It’s alright, Chuck. You can say it. We all know it was a surprise." The man sounds amused, rather than bothered by the accusation, and Chuck laughs again, a little nervously.

"If the General had only given us some warning – "

The man (Shaw? Dan?) shrugs. "It was a delicate op to arrange. Several things had to happen just right, or there would’ve been too great a risk that the Ring could have been able to find out I’d simply relocated to Castle. I’m sorry, Chuck. I know it was . . . unsettling, to have to meet that way. This is why business and home life shouldn’t be permitted to mix, in our world."

"Look, I heard what happened to your wife, and I’m sorry, but Devon . . . he was just trying to help!" Chuck protests, making Ellie’s heart skip about twenty beats in a row. "We’re the ones who got him into that mess in the first place! It’s not his fault that – "

" – that Casey got careless, and a civilian doctor worried that his soon to be brother-in-law might have a very disturbed male stalker for a neighbor was able to breach the perimeter of his personal base of operations?"

"It doesn’t sound nearly as accidental as it was, when you put it that way."

"Casey is a professional. He should’ve known better. He got sloppy. The good doctor found out some things he shouldn’t have. And instead of bringing in a team, to deal with the situation – there are drugs that can cause short-term amnesia, with little to no side-effects, Chuck. I’m sure you’re aware of that, given all the information the new Intersect had in its programming – your handlers compounded the problem by permitting you to tell him a part of the truth. He’s been put in serious danger, since then, and it’s entirely possible he will be put in serious danger again, because your handlers indulged your need to have someone outside the team to talk to."

"It’s not like that! I just happen to think my family and friends deserve the truth, dammit! I’m tired of lying to everybody all the time! Ellie and Devon are family and they worry about me! He went snooping around at Casey’s because Ellie probably asked him to check in on me and he couldn’t find me at the Buy More! Which, by the way, is a really bad cover, seeing as how I’m hardly ever there, anymore! If you people would just – "

"Chuck. I’m sorry, but you’re one of us now. There are rules for a reason. The Agency and other organizations within the government have been doing this for a very long time. We know what we’re doing. No big, sudden changes. They stand out and they draw attention and the very last thing we want is more attention on you. You’re the only Intersect we have. We don’t want to lose you, like we lost Bryce."

"Don’t. Don’t you dare go there. Bryce is not lost. Bryce got taken. If you people would get up off of your asses and just find him – "

"Bryce Larkin was shot in the line of duty and is presumed dead, Chuck. I’m sorry – "

"They. Took. Him. He’s not dead! The Ring took him because they wanted to be able to use him!" Chuck snarls, making Ellie have to bite down hard on her lower lip again, to keep from making any noise, near to tears at the amount of sheer frustration and rage and hurt and heartsick loss in her little brother’s voice. "They thought he had an earlier version of the Intersect in his head, and they knew he was slated to have the next Intersect download, and they wanted him, so they could use him. There’s been no body and no sign of a body, and you know there are ways to bring people back, if you get the body on ice in time or get the right combination of meds and electricity into them, in time. We don’t even know that the shot was fatal, for God’s sake! I was the only other one in the room, and, without an Intersect in my head to help me assess someone’s condition, I’m not a reliable judge of those things!"

"Agent Walker sure seems to be under the impression that her partner was killed – "

"Don’t. Don’t give me that line. Sarah’s a good person and a damn fine agent, but you and I both know how much she lies. She was too close to Bryce and she’s been too close to me, according to the Agency. You do the math," Chuck spits out, coldly furious.

The man sighs, and moves to put a hand on Chuck’s shoulder. "Chuck – "

Chuck just angrily shrugs him off. "I don’t know why you people can’t see to understand this! They took him for a reason. And the longer they have him, the more time they have to try to break him or to come up with some new Intersect-type program that can just overwrite the part of him that makes him loyal to us and make him loyal to them, instead. You don’t know Bryce like I do. If they turn him, I can guarantee that we’re all going to be in for a world of hurt. A world of it, Agent Shaw, if not an entire goddamned universe. And it’ll turn out that all of it could’ve been avoided, too, if only someone had listened to me and gone looking for him in time to get him away from those damned monsters!"

"Chuck, I’m sorry – "

"Oh, screw you and your damn orders, Shaw! You know what? If you people hadn’t brainwashed Bryce into thinking there was no one he could trust and that he was some kind of monster and had no right to come to someone like me for help in the first place, none of this would’ve ever happened! We would’ve been working together from day frakkin’ one, and we’d have Fulcrum and your damned Ring infiltrated, taken down, dismantled, and hung out to dry, by now! We’d be on some nice little beach somewhere, taking it easy and recharging after all that work, entertaining ourselves by identifying and taking care of every single freakin’ goon the Agency and NSA and everybody else could’ve ever even thought about trying to send our way!"

The man sighs, shoulder slumping, wryly muttering, "I think I preferred Dan, to this."

Chuck blinks, startled, and then frowns, confused. "Excuse me?"

"I said, I think I preferred it when you were calling me Dan, to this kind of tongue-lashing. Look, I’m sorry about your friend. If there was something I could do, I would. But it’s out of my hands, Chuck. You are my mission. You, and the new Intersect, and the Ring. We’re supposed to be fighting the Ring, not each other. I know we didn’t exactly get off on the right foot. But can’t we try to work past that? Please? I need you to be able to trust me, Chuck. If we’re going to do this – if we’re going to take down the Ring – I’m going to have to be able to trust you and your team, and it’s not going to work if you don’t trust me to take care of you."

"What, like you took care of Devon?" Chuck snipes back, scowling.

The man angles himself slightly towards the window, hands sliding into his pockets as he sighs, and Ellie can see the wave of tiredness wash over his face. "He’s safe now, isn’t he? I shot myself, as part of his cover. I’d think that would count for something."

"You dragged us into the middle of your own damn op against the Ring, shot yourself when I refused to shoot you so Devon wouldn’t have to, made Devon think for a minute that I’d actually killed you, to protect him, and then it was all a trick, anyway, because you’d taken some damn pill that’d stopped your heart so the bullet wouldn’t kill you. And then Devon was the one who had to bring you back, because of that! And you want me to be grateful, for that?" Chuck half laughs, clearly incredulous.

Quietly, Dan Shaw points out, "There was a chance it wouldn’t work, you know."

"That just proves you’re at least as much of a maniac as Casey ever was, at the beginning of all this, when he shot Bryce without even blinking! Look, I’m sorry about your wife. I really am. But there are more important things to live for than vengeance against the Ring! If she were here, I doubt very much if she’d be happy with the way you’re living your life, now! You live under the shop, for God’s sake! You never leave the Castle unless it’s a mission! This is only the third time I’ve ever even gotten you to come inside my home, and you only came in because you – because you – well, whatever crazy reasons you had, for thinking I couldn’t walk myself back in just fine on my own two feet!" Chuck insists, gesturing wildly with the hand not still rubbing absently at the soreness in his chest, where he was apparently shot.

The man’s shoulder’s sag, and Ellie actually feels sorry for him for a moment (though only a little. Mostly, she’s too busy being shocked and worried and furious beyond words, at the fact that her husband apparently knows about Chuck and not only hasn’t told her about what he knows, but has permitted himself to get sucked so far into the thick of things that he’s had to patch up Chuck’s new handler or boss or whatever the hell this man is!), as he reaches up to pinch the bridge of his nose, as though trying to stave off a headache. "Chuck, you’re hurt. I wasn’t fast enough and I let you get injured. I didn’t want to compound the mistake by sending you off alone, where you might fall and hurt yourself seriously. Speaking of which, you really should let me take a look at that leg. It wouldn’t hold you, earlier, when you tried to stand, and if you’ve done more damage to yourself than you think, you might need a doctor."

"And I suppose you’re a doctor now too, Agent Shaw?"

"No, Chuck. I’m just Daniel Shaw, who knows that you’re in pain, and would like to be allowed to try to do something about it, so you won’t have to suffer any more than is necessary."

Chuck deflates like a popped balloon. "Look. I just – I’m sorry. It’s been a bad day. I’m not sure this is a good idea. I haven’t really made up my mind all the way about you, yet, and this isn’t helping your case, any. I know you take this all very seriously and you’re determined to never lose another agent and I find that . . . commendable. But you really don’t need to do this. I’m fine. I’ve been hurt worse, without anyone bothering to make a fuss, and been just fine. It’s harder for me to take these kinds of things in stride because I have a low tolerance level for pain. But I’ve been trying to work past that, and I really can’t do that if you start coddling me. Isn’t that what you got after Casey and Sarah for, anyway? Protecting me just a little bit too well? I thought you were supposed to be pushing me to be all I can possibly be, as a spy, not carrying me home because you’re afraid I might fall down and hurt myself."

Ellie catches a glimpse of a smile as the agent turns back towards her brother. "There’s a difference between coddling someone and taking care of them, Chuck. How about you let me be the judge of that? I am, after all, in charge of this operation, now."

Chuck shifts a little uncomfortably on the bed. "Erhm, okay, I guess. What do I need to do, exactly? I mean, you can’t exactly see through the jeans or anything – "

"Just slide forward a little, okay? And hold still, except for when I put you through the range of motion test. I’ll try not to hurt you. But I need to make sure it’s not a serious injury."

Chuck gives him an uncertain look, but slides forward on the bed, while Daniel Shaw kneels down in front of the bed and reaches out to touch his right knee. The bed is at a slight angle to the closet, so Ellie can see that the man’s touch is both delicate and sure, as skilled as any doctor, as he carefully maps Chuck’s knee and the area immediately around it, checking for obvious swelling and bruising. Chuck hisses and startles, as that light touch curves around behind the joint of his knee, and Shaw absently reaches out to rest his other hand on Chuck’s uninjured knee, in a settling gesture that, surprisingly enough, makes Chuck stop moving. The agent (who strikes her as being only a little bit older than Chuck, despite his world-weary attitude) then lifts Chuck leg slightly, before angling himself over to the side so he can put the limb through a range of motion test.

The motions are entirely professional, and yet . . . and yet, to Ellie, it seems like there’s something subtly wrong about the whole thing. It’s not until Daniel Shaw turns his face away from Chuck for a moment, though, when Chuck makes another small noise of pain, and she sees that he’s biting down on his lower lip, hard, that she understands, and then she has to work very hard to make herself hold still and keep quiet, because it is very, very clear to her that this Agent Shaw (or Daniel Shaw or Dan or whatever his name is), despite all that talk about how work and one’s home life shouldn’t be allowed to mix and how he’s just taking care of Chuck and not coddling him, is (formerly married or not) pretty damn obviously attracted to her brother, and that he cares about Chuck a lot more than he thinks he ought to.

All in all, it’s enough to give Ellie a seriously bad feeling about the entire situation, especially given the news about Bryce. (She can’t exactly fault Chuck’s logic – if she’s following what he said correctly, then this Ring organization had every reason to want to capture Bryce alive and to keep him that way – and that means that his own people have apparently abandoned him, rather than trying to track him down and rescue him, which says nothing but awful things about them and makes Ellie more than a little nervous about the people who’re apparently in charge, behind the scenes, of her own country. She’s not surprised Chuck’s frustrated and upset and not in any kind of mood to have anyone feed him any lines about anything. She’s just a little surprised Chuck hasn’t gone off and tried to find Bryce on his own, yet . . . which in turn makes her wonder if he hasn’t been trying to track Bryce down and hitting nothing but dead ends, since he can’t enlist the help and resources of the Agency to help him.)

As Agent Shaw hunches in on himself and quietly pronounces the knee simply bruised and advises elevation and ice and taking it easy for a few days, if at all possible (or coming by the Castle and seeing about getting a brace, if they need him for a mission), Ellie once again has to bite at her lower lip, this time to keep from sighing. She has a very bad feeling that this is going to be a nasty complication for Chuck, one way or another, and hopes that Dan’s training as an Agent will permit him to keep it from becoming too terribly ugly. When Chuck looks up at the man as he pushes his way back to his feet and gives him one of those incredibly sweet smiles that always used to make the girls fall pigtails over mary janes for him, in grade school, though, it takes an effort of will to keep her from banging her head off the nearest wall. With Chuck acting like . . . well, like Chuck, the poor guy really doesn’t have a chance. And that means things are about to get even messier and crazier than they already are.

With an inaudible sigh, she mentally promises to take her vigilance up a notch, to make sure she keeps track of everything that’s going on around Chuck, so she can continue to do everything in her power to help keep her brother safe, and, though it pisses her off to have to let something that big go (how dare Devon keep something that important about her brother from her? Doesn’t he know yet that she’d do anything – absolutely anything – to protect her family?), decides to let Devon off the hook for not telling her about how he get messed up in one of Chuck’s Intersect missions, since it would probably cause nothing but trouble for Chuck, at the moment. Quietly (glad she left her cell at home and that Devon’s working a late shift and won’t be home for at least three more hours), she settles back and waits, uncomfortable in the tight space of the closet, for Shaw to leave and Chuck to drift off to sleep, so she can sneak out without either of them ever being the wiser to her presence.

Thankfully, she doesn’t have to worry about Shaw’s attachment to Chuck or Bryce’s uncertain fate for too terribly long of a time, afterwards. Through yet another judicious act of eavesdropping (this one carefully planned and meticulously carried out), she learns that Agents Walker and Shaw are leaving for an extended undercover mission, to uncover a Ring base of operations, and that Chuck is planning to use the unsupervised time to hunt down a solid lead on Bryce’s current whereabouts, gained in part through some freelance contacts of John Casey’s. As soon as she hears the news, Ellie has a good feeling about the whole thing, and, since she’s one who trusts her feelings, she decides to go with it. She orders a cake with the legend WELCOME HOME, BOYS! emblazoned in big, bold, blue letters across it and gets some good champagne, and then waits, until she knows for sure that Chuck has been gone for at least three hours, before sneaking into his room through his perpetually open window (knowing that Casey is probably watching her – because it only makes sense that Chuck’s handlers would have surveillance on him 24/7, especially given his bad habit of letting people in and out of his room through the open window – but not really caring, since it’s not like the man suspects she knows anything, and is therefore unlikely to assume that she’s doing anything other than leaving her brother a treat, possibly due to some Bartowski family tradition he’s not yet aware of), goodies in tow.

The rather urgent knocking on the door at roughly half past two is expected. The sight of her little brother, with a somewhat wild-eyed Bryce Larkin in tow, makes her squeal with glee and throw her arms around the both of them. While Chuck is kind of just standing there, mouth hanging open, and Bryce is beginning to laugh, she leans in, brushes a kiss across his cheek, and exclaims, "Thank God! I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep any more of those blasted secrets a secret any longer, without exploding! Please, please, please tell me that the two of you have finally worked things out! I’m not sure I could take it any longer, if I had to go back to wondering when you’d get over whatever the hell’s been holding you back and he’d get a freakin’ clue!"

"Er, ah, yeah, about that . . . how exactly did you know about Bryce being alive, again?"

"I’m not stupid, Chuck. You and your super spy friends may think you’re being all clever and sneaky, but I’m your big sister, remember? You can’t hide things from me. That’s just a given. So come on! Put me out of my misery! How are things, between the two of you?"

Bryce, still laughing, slides an arm around Chuck’s waist, and pulls him in close. While Chuck is still sputtering indignantly at her declaration, he pulls him around, dips him down low, and plants the kind of kiss on him that usually only happens in movies, with fireworks going off in the background and a swirling crescendo of romantic music.

The squeal Ellie lets loose is ear-piercing. "Thank God! It’s about time! I thought I was going to have to lock you both in a closet somewhere, before you’d finally get around to admitting it to each other! I’m so happy for you guys! Ooh! You make such a good couple! Come on in and sit down and tell me all about it! I give it another hour or so before the tranquilizers I slipped in Casey’s drink, when he came by for dinner, wear off, and he comes thundering in. Unless Devon has to work over, he should be getting home right around then, too, so we won’t have to worry about either of them for a bit. There should be plenty of time for you to tell me all about the grand escape. Did you bring the cake? Never mind. I’ll go get it. You two sit down and make yourselves at home! I’ll be back in a jiffy!"

As a ridiculously happy Ellie hustles out the door, to fetch the celebratory welcoming cake, she remembers something Morgan said once, a few years ago, about Bryce being the Boba Fett to Chuck’s Han Solo, and snorts indignantly. He’s much more like the Lando Calrissian to Chuck’s Han, honestly . . . if Lando had been head over heels in love with Han and Han had been taking up with Princess Leia in an attempt to distract himself from his feelings about Lando, that is. Or maybe he’s the Han to Chuck’s Luke, flying in to the rescue at the last moment, after apparently abandoning the poor kid in his hour of greatest need. Or something like that! Hell. No Star Wars comparisons are really ever quite perfect, in real life.

She’s just glad she doesn’t have to think of Bryce as Anakin Skywalker turned Darth Vader anymore. Thinking of him as Chuck’s significant other and someone who won’t hesitate to do anything and everything in his power, to keep Chuck both safe and happy, now that they’ve finally admitted how they feel to each other? Much better, by far.

Besides. She can’t wait to see the looks on the faces of Chuck’s spy handlers, when they find out that not only has Eleanor Bartowski known about them and their operation here for quite some time, but that she knew why Chuck was so desperate to get Bryce back, and got to be the first to welcome them home.

Hmmm. Maybe she should see about digging her camera out, before Casey and Devon join the party. Future blackmail material might not be such a bad idea, if Agent Shaw or Agent Walker decide to take things badly . . .

Grinning wickedly as she clambers in Chuck’s window, Ellie resolves to do just that. After all, when you’re trying to take care of someone as prone to attracting danger as Chuck Bartowski, you can never be too careful.

And even though Bryce is back, she still has that promise to herself to take care of her little brother to keep, hopefully for many, many years more to come!

 

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